Posts Tagged ‘Second Coming’

Making sense of the Second Coming and Jesus’ words in Matthew 24

August 17, 2017

In preparing to preach on the Second Coming in last Sunday’s sermon (based on Peter’s warning in 1 Peter 4:7 that “the end of all things is at hand”), I read the most helpful book on the subject that I’ve ever read: Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future.

His book cleared up confusion on my part concerning the so-called Olivet Discourse, Jesus’ “little apocalypse,” delivered to his disciples on the Mount of Olives, in Matthew 24-25 and its parallels.

What was I confused about? Something that N.T. Wright advocates in his commentaries on the subject: everything that Jesus says in this passage (and elsewhere in the gospels), which has traditionally been understood as pertaining to his Second Coming, isn’t about the Second Coming at all. Rather, it’s about the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.

Now, before the “Wright Is Wrong” crowd start piling on, let me say this: Wright doesn’t for a moment deny the Second Coming. In fact, he affirms it loudly from the rest of the New Testament. He just doesn’t think that Jesus taught it prior to his resurrection. In one of his commentaries, he writes that the disciples couldn’t understand his predictions about his suffering, death, and resurrection. Why would Jesus further confuse them with words about his Second Coming?

So this makes Wright a “partial Preterist”: Jesus’ apocalyptic language has already been fulfilled.

While I see the appeal of this position, and it’s clear that much of what Jesus says pertains to the events of A.D. 70, I certainly don’t believe that this is all Jesus is talking about. In order to buy into the Preterism of Matthew 24, you have to interpret Jesus’ words in v. 30, “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heavens” in a wildly figurative way: Wright says that when the Temple is destroyed, Christians will “see” Jesus and his glory in the sense of vindication: his warnings about Jerusalem, for example, in Matthew 23:37-38, and Israel’s failure to embrace his way of peace, will be fulfilled, and Christ will be glorified. Something like that…

So Jesus, in Wright’s view, “returns” in this figurative sort of way in A.D. 70, before he returns in a more literal way at the end of the age. In a sense, Wright teaches that there are two “returns” of Christ. And don’t most of us Christians—including Wright himself—fault our dispensationalist brothers and sisters for teaching that Christ returns twice—once for Christians and a second time after the Great Tribulation? Is Wright’s position really so different?

Regardless, as much as I respect Wright—and as much as I fear disagreeing with so fierce an intellect—his argument about Jesus’ “little apocalypse” sounds like wishful thinking. It sounds like he’s trying to solve an apologetic problem—namely, Is the Bible, or Jesus, wrong about the Second Coming?

Granted, his “solution” isn’t the worst I’ve heard. C.S. Lewis—speaking of Christian thinkers I admire—happily admits that Jesus was wrong. But that’s O.K., he says, because Jesus himself said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36).

So this is where Hoekema comes in: From his perspective, there is no problem. Not if we understand the way prophetic language works.

For example, I’ve struggled with two aspects of Jesus’ “little apocalypse.” First, if Jesus is talking about the end of the age and his Second Coming, why does his language focus so sharply on events in and around ancient Palestine?

On this point, Hoekema writes the following:

In this discourse Jesus seems to be describing events associated with his Second Coming in terms of the people of Israel and of life in Judea. These details, however, should not be interpreted with strict literalness. Herman Ridderbos has some helpful things to say about this:

… The prophet paints the future in the colors and with the lines that he borrows from the world known to him, i.e., from his own environment…. We see the prophets paint the future with the palette of their own experience and project the picture within their own geographical horizon. This appears in the Old Testament prophets in all kinds of ways. And in our opinion, this is also the explanation of Jesus’ description of the future. He follows the Old Testament most closely, and not only is the temporal perspective lacking at the end, but the geographical horizon within which the eschatological events take place is also restricted in some places to the country of Judaea or to the cities of Israel.

In other words, Hoekema writes,

Jesus was describing future events in terms which would be understandable to his hearers, in terms which had local ethnic and geographic color. We are not warranted, however, in applying these predictions only to the Jews, or in restricting their occurrence only to Palestine.[†]

My second problem with Jesus’ words about the Second Coming in Matthew 24 is how they blur so easily with his prediction about the fall of Jerusalem. Why does it seem so unclear, so confusing? But here, too, according to Hoekema, Jesus is following the pattern of Old Testament prophecies. He is employing “prophetic foreshortening.” I explained this idea in last Sunday’s sermon. I hope you find it helpful:

And on the Mount of Olives nearby, the disciples ask Jesus a two-fold question: “Tell us, when will these things be”—in other words, when will the Temple be destroyed—“and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” So the disciples have asked about the destruction of the Temple and the Second Coming. And in Jesus’ response that follows, he talks about both. And it’s often hard to tell when he’s talking about one event and not the other.

And that’s intentional: He’s saying that the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple—which took place in the year 70—reflects, on a much smaller scale, what God will do on a global scale when Christ returns. So he’s using the destruction of the Temple to make a point about the end of the age and the Second Coming. There’s a near-term fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and a long-term fulfillment.

Old Testament prophets do this all the time. Let me give two quick examples: In Isaiah 7, King Ahaz, the king of Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, is being threatened by the Northern Kingdom and Syria. And he’s worried about whether his kingdom will survive. So Isaiah gives him a sign to reassure him that God will save him and his kingdom: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel.’” And before that child is grown, in a short time, those two kings that seem so frightening right now will be dead and gone, yet the Southern Kingdom will survive. Now, we don’t know the identity of this virgin and child to whom Isaiah was referring, but he’s describing something that will happen soon—a “near-term” fulfillment; the ultimate, long-term fulfillment, of course, would happen hundreds of years later, which is described by Matthew in his Christmas narrative

Another example is the Book of Joel: He talks about God’s judgment against Israel in the form of a plague of locusts that will produce famine in the land. And he says that the people can repent and be saved. But then he pivots from this near-term judgment of God to God’s final judgment—and our hope for salvation in Christ. The two events blend together. He uses a small-scale event to make a point about a much larger-scale event.

And Jesus does the same thing when he relates the destruction of the Temple to his Second Coming. When you read Matthew 24, it seems like the Second Coming will happen at the same time as, or shortly after, the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, but as one scholar says, it’s like looking at mountain peaks from a far distance: They look like they’re close together, but when you get up next to them, you see that they’re separated by many miles.

I emphasize this because I don’t want us to get discouraged and think, “The Second Coming is never going to happen! It would have happened a long time ago!” I don’t want us to lose confidence in God’s Word.

What are your thoughts? What questions or concerns have you had about the doctrine of the Second Coming?

Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 149.

Billy Graham on Vinyl, Part 10: “The Signs of the Time, the End of the World, the Second Coming”

June 17, 2015

Billy Graham Record

In honor of Billy Graham, a hero of mine, I’m digitizing some of his sermons from long out-of-print records and making them available as MP3s. This sermon is found on an LP called Billy Graham Crusade in Miniature from 1969 (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, BG-3345).

Billy Graham Record 02

This sermon, from a Crusade he preached in New York City in 1969, is the third in this Billy Graham series on the Second Coming, each one essentially different from the others. Here he refers to the nuclear arms race, racial tensions, student unrest, and scientific pessimism, combined with the “almost frantic quest for pleasure and having a good time” as the “shadow of the possibility of the destruction of the human race. And so the human race stands at this moment on the brink, on the threshold. Many of our leaders don’t know the answer.”

Now there are three elements even in modern theology… there is pessimism. Harry Emerson Fosdick was a pastor in this city for many years. In his sunset years he said this: “If one’s thinking is dominated by the gigantic events of our generation, we cannot avoid despair.” So we have a theology of despair. We have a theology of activism. And we have a theology of hope. I belong to that group that has a theology of hope, because my hope is not centered in this world, or in what man is going to do or not going to do. My hope is centered in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, who the Bible says is going to come back some day and straighten the whole mess out. That’s our hope: in Christ!

Like Graham, I also belong to the group that has a theology of hope. I take no consolation in signs of “progress.” I’m not overly concerned with bleak headlines. The world will get worse before it gets better. But when it gets better, it will be unimaginably good.

Detail from back of the record sleeve.

Detail from back of the record sleeve.

Right-click here to download an MP3 version of this sermon.

Click here for the previous post in this series, which includes links to the other sermons.

UMC’s General Board of Discipleship denies the Second Coming

December 2, 2014

How else can you interpret its “Preaching Notes” on Mark 13:24-37, the gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Advent in Lectionary Year B?

After quoting from the text, the author of the notes (which have no byline) writes:

Perhaps we are accustomed to hearing these words of Jesus preached as a prophesy meant for the distant future, a time when recorded history will cease and the world will come to an end with the judgment of God.

Indeed, we are, and for good reason, since this view represents a consensus of Christian thinking on the topic for the past two millennia. And even if, like N.T. Wright, one embraces an orthodox form of preterism, believing that many of Jesus’ words here refer only to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, one does not deny the Second Coming of Christ at the end of history, followed by resurrection, followed by final judgment, followed by a new heaven-and-earth-made-one.

Like Wright, I believe, along with many evangelicals, that Jesus’ words about “this generation” not passing away “until all these things have taken place” is a reference to the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, which was a cataclysmic event for people who lived through it. I don’t believe, however, that that’s all Jesus is saying in this passage. And neither does the universal church, which places this text in the lectionary for the first Sunday of Advent because it intends to teach us about the Second Coming. Historically, that’s what the first Sunday of Advent is about.

Regardless, the author isn’t representing orthodox preterism. Not with words such as these:

Peter must have mulled Jesus’ words over in his mind a thousand times, weighing every syllable, thinking about what Jesus meant, and wondering if perhaps his teacher might have been mistaken. Finally, it must have occurred to him that Jesus was not mistaken. It was he, Peter, who was mistaken. He had been looking at the clouds in the sky when he should have been looking at the clouds inside himself…

The Son of Man doesn’t come stepping off of a literal cloud in the sky. When he comes and sends out his angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven, where will he find them? Our souls do not blow literally in the winds, the earth has no literal end, and neither does heaven. The souls of men and women are not to be seen with the naked eye, anymore than is heaven.

No. All these things are matters of the spirit, where the present and the past and the future are merged, so that Jesus speaks to us now in exactly the same way he did to James and John and Peter and Andrew long ago on the Mount of Olives.

When does the Son of Man come on the clouds with great power and glory? He comes to us at the same time he came to Peter. He comes after we have suffered great tribulation.

“Looking at the clouds inside himself…” “The earth has no literal end…” “All these things are matters of the spirit…” The Son of Man comes “after we have suffered [personal] tribulation.”

The author seems to believe that because Jesus is employing highly figurative, apocalyptic language here, there is no literal truth about a great tribulation preceding the culmination of history, or final judgment, or even a physical resurrection of the dead, presumably—since all these things are “matters of the spirit,” and Jesus is only interested in our souls and not our bodies.

The author says that Peter himself realized that Jesus wasn’t talking about a Second Coming. How does the author square this view with Peter’s own words about “scoffers” who “will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires”?

They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

One thing the author of these notes would say, alongside so many mainline scholars, is that Peter didn’t write 2 Peter. While I strongly reject with this modernist old saw, let’s say for the sake of argument that it’s true: contrary to the earliest Christians who were in a far better position to know, Peter or a scribe writing under his direction didn’t write this letter.

Do we at least believe that the pseudonymous author was representing the apostle’s viewpoint, which he had learned firsthand from the apostle or someone who knew the apostle well—that this letter was somehow an homage to the apostle and his life’s work? (I think that’s the liberal explanation for what appears to us to be a deeply unethical practice.) Do we at least believe that the author of 2 Peter was writing inspired scripture? If so, why does the pseudonymous author believe that Jesus was talking about a literal Second Coming? Why do we know more today than this inspired author of holy scripture?

Sadly, the author of these notes doesn’t wrestle with any of these questions.

But in a way I’m sympathetic: if the author attended a United Methodist-affiliated seminary like me, he or she wasn’t prepared to ask these kinds of questions. Not when the presumption of that education is that the Bible—far from being infallible or (yeah, right) inerrant—isn’t even an essentially truthful document.

The Second Coming and signs of the times

December 29, 2013

For the first time in nearly forever—I admit with shame—I’m going to preach, briefly, about the Second Coming. It ties into today’s message about Simeon and Anna in Luke 2:21-40: just as they were waiting for the first coming, we Christians are waiting for the Second Coming.

What a marginalized doctrine this is for most of us today! I realize in decades and centuries past, some parts of the Church have overemphasized it, but it’s hard to see that many of us—especially Methodist preachers like me—are in danger of doing that today.

The Bible warns that there will be signs of the end. In a November 28 sermon that attracted little media attention, Pope Francis himself talked about one potential sign that he sees coming true today (see this and that): the intensified persecution of Christians in the Middle East. In his sermon he said:

What does this mean? It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world… You must obey the orders which come from worldly powers. You can do many things, beautiful things, but not adore God. Worship is prohibited—this is at the center of the end of time… [Once we] reach the fullness of this pagan attitude…truly the Son of Man will come in a cloud with great power and glory.

If Pope Francis is talking about the Second Coming and signs of the end, good heavens, why aren’t I?

Of course the world’s not ending tomorrow, but not so fast…

May 20, 2011

I'm not laughing about this family's story. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times.)

Like fellow blogger Fred Clark, I find this hysteria among a very small number of American Christians about the end of the world—and the very large media firestorm having fun at their expense—too sad and depressing to laugh about. I like what Fred said:

Fortunately, Camping [the self-styled theologian who is predicting the world’s end tomorrow] is not as widely influential as LaHaye, so we’re talking about only thousands of followers, not millions. But that’s thousands of people, thousands of families experiencing one kind of trauma now and due for another, existential, shaken-to-the-core trauma come Saturday. That some of this trauma is self-inflicted or that, like most victims of con-artists, they are partially complicit in their own undoing doesn’t change the fact that we’re still talking about thousands of people in pain, fear and despair.

These people who are setting themselves up for this kind of existential disappointment are are still my brothers and sisters in Christ. The family profiled in this New York Times article (whose snarky headline doesn’t match the more evenhanded tone of the article) hardly seems like a bunch of lunatics. Nevertheless, I profoundly disagree with their theology and outlook.

Of course the end of the world isn’t happening tomorrow. Or maybe I should qualify it by saying that, even if it were happening tomorrow, it wouldn’t be because some guy has calculated the date from scripture. It can’t be found there. We can know this in part because, among many other warnings in scripture, Jesus teaches us that when the end of this present age comes, it will come unexpectedly (Matthew 24:42-51). Jesus said explicitly that he didn’t know, and he didn’t tell his own apostles. If anyone presumes to know today, therefore, he or she will surely be wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

The myth of progress and Christianity

September 22, 2010

Creepy animatronic dad, who looks frighteningly like Saturday Night Live's Will Forte, talks about how great life is in the 1940s. Never mind the Nazis, I guess.

In my sermon this past Sunday, I cast grave doubt on the idea that our world was becoming a better place. To be sure, science and technology advance, new political and economic solutions are implemented, and some people in in the world experience gains in their standards of living and life expectancy, but it’s not clear at all that we—as a species—are making “progress.” The success of the Enlightenment project over the past three centuries, with its emphasis on reason and science, is at best a mixed bag.

This may not be news to anyone, but it does go against the propaganda that we learned in school and was fed to us through popular culture. As I pointed out in my sermon, the implicit promise of Disney World’s “Carousel of Progress” never came to pass. Our world continues to be mired in sin and evil. Everything else may change, but humanity’s capacity for and inclination toward evil hasn’t.

Does this mean that Christianity failed—or the gospel of Jesus Christ failed? Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon for 11-29-09: “Hope”

November 30, 2009

Sermon Text: Luke 21:25-36

Here we are: the season of Advent. It’s a season that is technically a lot like Lent: It’s a time when we get ourselves in shape, spiritually speaking, for the upcoming Christmas season. The Christmas season officially begins at 12:00 a.m. on December 25. Of course, you wouldn’t know this if you’ve been to the mall or a department store. Outside the church, the Christmas season is in full swing. The Christmas season unofficially begins when Santa Claus makes an appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Now is the place where you might expect a good Methodist preacher like me to get on my high horse about how wrong our pop culture is to celebrate Christmas so early; to complain that Christmas is over-commercialized; to complain that we should focus more on Jesus and less on Santa Claus; to complain that we overemphasize Christmas at the expense of Easter, et cetera. But you know what? Read the rest of this entry »